Mahouts fear losing their elephants

national October 28, 2013 00:00


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IT WOULD be hard for a 45-year-old mahout from Surin to give up his precious cow elephant – but that might be necessary if a new wildlife-protection law is enacted.
“I would lose my mind. It would be terrible for me,” Watcharapong Mohom, who has been living with 21-year-old elephant La Aung Dow for more than 10 years in Tha Lat village of Chumphon Buri’s Tambon Sri Narong, said last week.
La Aung Dow is like a sister to Watcharapong. He has taken care of her since she was born. He inherited her from his father. 
Every day, he has to feed her bales of bananas, sugarcane and grass. He also has to wash and scrub her. 
“We speak different languages but we can communicate and understand each other,” he said.
“When I tell her to sleep, she sleeps. When I tell her to run, she runs.”
Unlike other jumbos, La Aung Dow can swim and has won several competitions during the past two years. She also helps him to make money.
He takes her on walks around nearby villages. When someone asks permission to crawl under her belly, Watcharapong gets Bt99. In Thai culture, some people believe that passing under an elephant brings good luck. Sometimes people would ask him to take his elephant to an auspicious ceremony such as a wedding or the ordination of a monk, as they believe a pachyderm would make their lives better. 
He earns about Bt5,000-Bt10,000 from each charter depending on the distance.
He used to take his elephant across the border to Laos to attend auspicious activities.
The mahout’s income from his elephant averages about Bt10,000 per month.
“That is enough to take care of my family,” the father of two said.
In his village, about 70 domesticated elephants are kept by mahouts. All of them have been registered with the Interior Ministry for an identification certificate. They were also embedded with microchips to prove that they are domesticated and also to show their location. 
A mahout from the same village, Bunleu Yiat-Lam, 30, also owns a cow elephant named Bunlai. She has been living with Bunleu for 20 years. 
“I have known her since I was born. She has already become one of the family,” he said.
He will take his jumbo around Isaan to make money from people desiring her presence at auspicious ceremonies.
Last week, Watcharapong and Bunleu travelled from their hometown to meet up with the hundreds of mahouts from across the country gathered at Ayutthaya’s elephant corral to protest against the government’s attempt to regulate domesticated elephants by revising the Wild Animals Preservation and Protection Act of 1992. The revision is currently undergoing public hearings and is expected to be deliberated by Parliament soon. 
The amendment, proposed by the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, aims to prevent the poaching and illegal trade of elephants. During the past few years, many wild elephants in Thailand have been poached and domesticated, with some mahouts forging ID certificates.
Thailand currently has two legal statuses for elephants – domesticated and wild.
Domesticated elephants are listed under the Draught Animal Act. They are required to get an ID and register with the Interior Ministry. 
Wild elephants are fully protected by the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act. The exploitation of wild elephants, specimens, parts and derivatives is strictly prohibited. 
If the amendment is passed, domesticated elephants would be listed as wild animals under the supervision of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
Some proposed measures would allow officials to confiscate elephants if they find that their ID does not match their physical characteristics.
Watcharapong agreed with the government’s taking legal action against those who catch wild elephants for commercial purposes. But domesticated elephants, which are a family’s property, should belong to the owners, he said.

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